25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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Otello has fared relatively well on DVD. Domingo has three productions: ROH, Scala and the Met. He is also in a film courtesy of Zefferelli which can be ignored in view of the lip-synching and cuts to the score. Vickers has two, a Karajan film and the Met production from 1978 which is a stunning performance and commands the best Desdemona, Renata Scotto. There is also a production with Cura which I have not heard and an antiquity from RAI with Del Monaco which is self recommending for those fans who are willing to put up with zero production values and lip synching. In the interests of completeness, there is a set directed by Barenboim out of Berlin. I admit to knowing nothing as to the merits or demerits of this set.
This most recent taping is from Salzburg (and even with criticisms which muist be made) is highly competitive with the above sets featuring Domingo and Vickers. Even though we live in an era of the star conductor (and surely Muti is that)the cover of the set doesn't feature him nor does the camera linger on him during the performance (compare to Solti and his Salzburg Frosch). But he he clearly the star along with the great Vienna Philharmonic: they play as if possessed. The textures of the score are clear and balanced and it is exciting hear them though never at the expense of the singers. Muti, of all the conductors, can stand comparison with Toscanini; from the very beginning he establishes the tempos and the tone of the performance. Thrilling.
But what of the Otello? He is a young Latvian, aged 33 when the performance was taped; he had never sung the role before. It is a beautiful instrument, up to the demands of the role. One hopes, however, that he will put the role away for several years and sing the other Verdi tenor roles for which there is no tenor currently available. Yes, I know Licitra, Alvarez and Giordani sing these roles, but in my opinion they are merely stop gaps. Licitra is inconsistent from performance to performance as is Giordani; I have yet to hear either of them deliver a performance of distinction. Alvarez is pushing his essentially lyric tenor into the spinto rep; it remains to be seen how successful he is. Alagna's attemps in the spinto repertoire have not been successful and the velvety nap of his voice is worn as the most recent DVD of a very strange Orphee reveals. Antonenko has the vocal goods; he must learn to husband them if this is where he wants to spend his operatic time. What he doesn't have at aged 33 is the character and the soul of Otello; it certainly is not expressed in his face (or voice) and much of the camera work focuses on the artists. It was a risk for Muti to gamble on this very young singer in what is surely the most difficult tenor role and in spite of my reservations I think it has paid off.
Desdemona is sung by Marina Poplavskaya who represents the younger singers from the now discarded Soviet Union. She is clearly not Italian trained--no chest register--but she has recorded a Donna Anna from the ROH and subsequently performed in a Don Carlo (prima and first revival) excerpts which can be heard on YouTube. The Anna is a distinguished performance even though she was not well when the performance taped. I believe that her Desdemona was also a debut role for her. The voice is quite beautiful, intelligently used and she represents an asset to the lyric stage; more compelling than Te Kanawa and preferable to the somewhat self-absorbed Fleming though it must be said that she does sing beautifully.
Carlos Alvarez is the Iago, somewhat dramatically mute but preferable to the hammy overacting indulged in by some baritones. Indeed he sings well and unless you prefer the aging Nucci and MacNeil or the Russian Leiferkus he is clearly the front runner. If there wern't such a paucity of Verdi sopranos and tenors he surely would have a larger career. As it is he seems to be heard only in Europe.
For those with high end equipment and surround sound (and neighbors who are either sympathetic or slightly deaf) purchase of this set is a no-brainer. Even on my equipment I am aware of what I am not hearing. With the caveats mentioned above I find the set highly recommended.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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In my view this is an exceptional performance of Otello, one that ranks with the best of those currently available on video disc. Along with Riccardo Muti's masterful leadership in the pit and the quality of playing from the members of the Vienna Philharmonic, there is wonderful singing by the three principles: Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), Marina Poplavskaya (Desdemona), and Carlos Alvarez (Iago). All three of these stars have beautiful voices which they use intelligently and with appropriate dramatic effect for this production.
Marina Poplavskaya easily takes her place with those lyric sopranos able to float beautiful pianissimos. However, the ease with which both Antonenko and Alvarez comfortably handle piano and pianissimo passages is both an unexpected bonus and quite beautiful to hear. Oh, they can certainly produce thrilling, ringing high notes when appropriate (check out the "Si pel Ciel" duet between Otello and Iago!), but when the score markings call for softer singing we are treated to something truly special.
For example, in Iago's Second Act aria, "Era la notte," Alvarez's pianissimo delivery evokes a degree of menace that's quite chilling. And the duet between Otello and Desdemona that brings Act One to a close is gorgeously sung and ends, not on competing forte high notes, but on softly sung high notes that allow their voices to blend with the believable tenderness of young lovers.
One hopes that Mr. Antonenko will be careful in his choice of roles as he builds his future repertoire so that he can preserve not only his heroic, ringing tenor voice, but also his ability to sing such lovely pianissimo notes when the music and the story-line call for it.
Secondary roles are all capably handled, with especially impressive singing by Stephen Costello (Cassio), Barbara Di Castri (Emilia), and Mikhail Petrenko (Lodovico).
The costuming in this production is nicely done in styles that are consistent with the time-setting of the story. As to the staging, those who admire the beauty and time-period-appropriate designs of, say, Franco Zeffirelli, will be disappointed. However this production's staging, though somewhat sparse, is not jarring and it does feature some interesting symbolic effects.
Most Blu-ray discs these days feature picture and sound quality that is a joy to the viewer/listener and this one does not disappoint. In addition, the disc's bonus extra, "Talking Otello," features especially interesting and insightful interviews with the stage director, Stephen Langridge, and with all of the principle singers and with several of those in secondary roles.
One minor criticism is Antonenko's acting which is a bit unimaginative, consisting mostly of striding aggressively around the stage and scowling or sneering. However, one has the impression that this young man will quickly move up the learning curve of his profession and that his acting will improve dramatically (pun not intended) in future performances of this opera.
A more serious criticism, and the reason for four stars instead of five, is the excessive use of extreme close-ups of the lead singers. (One can literally count the sweat drops on the faces of some of the singers, especially Antonenko's.) This technique, which inexplicably has become de rigueur with today's opera video directors, is more off-putting than it is entertaining. It robs viewers of the perspective and scope of a given scene as viewed by the opera theater's live audience. But even worse, it can completely destroy the mood of a given scene. A prime example is the end of the Act One love duet when Otello and Desdemona embrace and kiss prior to adjourning to their bedroom. Instead of being swept up by the music and the romantic mood of the moment, viewers are inclined to wonder what Ms. Poplavskaya was thinking as Mr. Antonenko planted a drippingly-wet kiss full on her lips!
On balance, however, a superb opera experience.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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As he did in Florence 1980 (Scotto, Cossutta, Bruson; audio, various labels) and Milan 2001 (Frittoli, Domingo, Nucci; DVD, first TDK, then reissued by Arthaus), Riccardo Muti at Salzburg 2008 opts for Verdi's 1894 Paris revision of the Act III concertato. His are the only performances in my library, audio or video, that make use of this rewrite. As was so often the case when Verdi revised a movement (e.g. the quartet and various duets in DON CARLOS), the gain is in concentration and clarity. The progress of Iago's machinations as he flits from pawn to pawn is more clearly focal, as his lines are brought into sharper relief, while Desdemona's contribution is significantly adjusted. It is an intelligent alternative that Muti must believe should be respected as the master's final word. But I confess to missing the sheer majesty of the more familiar grand sprawl we usually get in its place.
As the doomed lovers at the heart of the tragedy, Aleksandrs Antonenko (b. 1975) and Marina Poplavskaya (b. 1977) demonstrate both the pros (energy and freshness) and cons (callowness) of casting young singers in this music. Antonenko's sound is pleasingly ripe, or still ripening; he handles very difficult music without apparent strain, and Muti elicits from him a remarkably clean, faithful reading. But he lacks something in stature. I've always thought it a vague, lazy criticism to say that someone's dramatic attitudes seem "externally applied," but I really felt that here. Antonenko seems to be acting the way he knows an Otello should act, rather than drawing on insights into emotional states that drive Otello to act in these ways. The performance is satisfying on a mechanical level without being fully convincing, and here I think Antonenko's obvious youth works against him. More recently, as Grigori/Dimitri in the Met's new BORIS GODUNOV, he might have been born to play his role. The Otello may be premature. The character's fear that his advancing age may be a factor driving Desdemona away, for example, does not resonate when expressed by Antonenko as it does in the video performances of Vickers and Domingo, who suggested greater gravitas overall. Without that gravitas -- without the feeling that we are seeing a great man in his maturity toppled by fatal insecurities -- Otello is just a ranting lout. The singing remains impressive, and one looks forward to hearing more from Antonenko. An apprenticeship in the Verdi roles that Domingo and Vickers sang prior to taking on Otello might be time well spent.
Marina Poplavskaya is physically perfect for Desdemona, who ideally should be or at least seem younger than her on-stage husband. Poplavskaya has the right patrician blond beauty, and her face makes a terrific camera subject. This is true especially in the final act, in which the scene with Emilia is lit by candlelight, creating wonderful shadow play on the elegant contours of the soprano's features. Poplavskaya uses her eyes expressively and does "pensive" better than she does anything, and this serves her well in that long passage of ominous tranquility, the Willow Song and Ave Maria. Elsewhere, despite knowledge that she has been criticized for being "cold" and "remote," I felt precisely the opposite -- that in the happier times of Act I and II, she seemed too accessible, too contemporary. I had difficulty accepting her as the Boito/Shakespeare shimmering ideal, the paradise from which Otello falls. Less than a regal "lady," one whose passion for Otello compels her to her own end (the subtitling stupidly omits a brief but crucial exchange in which Desdemona refuses Lodovico's offer of shelter), she is only a frightened girl in trouble. Perhaps someone else will respond to this human/verité Desdemona better than I did. I found some of the expressions of horror more appropriate to, say, IL TABARRO. The voice is very beautiful, and isolated effects are haunting. One hopes the style and the command progress to be wholly worthy of the instrument.
Carlos Álvarez can be a bland presence -- "a scowling stiff with a good voice," I meanly put it elsewhere -- but his bluntness actually serves him well as the almost elementally evil Iago of Boito, and specifically for the Iago of this production. His strong, focused singing and confident musicianship make him perhaps the best Iago on DVD (most of the others are unidiomatic, past their prime, or both). Smaller roles are nicely cast. Stephen Costello is a tremendous asset as a star-quality Cassio who makes Otello's jealousy quite plausible; Barbara Di Castri's Emilia is both lovely on its own terms and well contrasted with her mistress.
Director Stephen Langridge and set designer George Souglides inflict wounds on the opera without killing it outright. These days, that's enough for a gentleman's "C." Souglides's set design has everyone hopping on and off of what looks like a giant glass coffee table. When Iago makes a big show of smashing the thing at the end of Act III, it's nearly character redemption. A sword is stuck in the stage for most of the opera, and the handle makes it look like a cross, and I was about to go on about the twin themes of violence and religion but I started to doze off. In the first act, Otello more or less "presents" to the revelers what I assume is supposed to be an adolescent boy of the vanquished Muslims, and "Fuoco di gioia" is taken up with four choral tarts sexually harassing him. They force his face into lewd positions on their own bodies and then push him away, laughing at him, like more aggressive Rhinemaidens. Confused and frightened, he tries to flee, but bully boys on the sidelines force him back for more. Then his hands are tied and a cloth sack is put over his head, and if writing about the symbolic sword/cross in the stage didn't put me to sleep, discussing the parallels between Cyprus and Abu Ghraib would finish me off for certain. (By the way, since Otello turns the kid over to these bitches and thugs before leaving the stage for a while, he presumably sanctions this nonsense. As if it isn't hard enough to keep an audience sympathetic to Otello for the latter three-fourths of the opera, Langridge has to start making us dislike him right after "Esultate!"?) The boy then is put to work as a servant in the palace, I believe, because he gets to be the only person who sees and hears Iago's monstrous gloating at the end of Act III. (What a shame that they would never listen to a little Muslim boy. Tragedy could have been averted. O, steep wages of intolerance.) Suffice to say, the opera goes best when Langridge stays out of the way and lets it take care of itself, as in Act IV. The costumes are attractive.
The performance took place in August 2008, and from the looks of things, the air conditioning was out. Antonenko and Álvarez are frequently drenched, and the women probably are being rescued by their foundation. The camerawork is aggressively close, and not a bead of perspiration, an involuntary spray of spittle, or a saliva rope goes undocumented. The English subtitles would have been satisfactory in the VHS/LD era but are not up to the modern standard. Of course there must be condensation in the ensembles, but here there are curious lapses throughout the opera, in which lines go untranslated for no good reason.
The strongest personality involved, of course, is that of Maestro Muti. This is "his" OTELLO, first to last. Reports from some attendees were that the orchestra (VPO) was teeth-rattlingly loud, and whether it was overwhelming in a good or a bad way was something of a split decision. The singers are not drowned out on the DVD, however, nor do they seem to be struggling to be heard. The Viennese have had a long and fruitful association with Muti, and they give him a magnificent and luxurious account of the score. But for all their virtuosity, I find them less idiomatic than the Scala forces on Muti's earlier DVD. That performance, documenting Domingo's farewell to the title role, suffers only from a vocally worn and somewhat plain Iago (the Salzburg one is preferable), and of course the sixtyish Domingo had to husband declining resources carefully. Those are small debits alongside Domingo's pathos and mature artistry, the chemistry between him and leading lady Barbara Frittoli, and the stunningly atmospheric and evocative orchestral playing of the Milanese (I've never heard a more hair-raising accompaniment to the Drinking Song, or winds in the Act IV prelude better balancing the deeply sad and the sinister).
The 2001 Scala performance remains my first DVD choice in general, with a fleeting glance in the direction of Vickers and Scotto -- an equally moving duo in a less refined but effectively contrasting way -- on the recently released Met DVD of 1978.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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This is a very exciting performance of Otello and is exactly what you would expect with Muti as the conductor. Otello is high-voltage Verdi and all the cast plus orchestra fully realise this vision. Not only is the singing of consistently high standard - so is the acting, so essential with opera generally and especially in these days of revealing photography.
The cast is of a uniformly high calibre. Aleksandra Antonenko is a good acting singer and in this performance he does not disappoint. Carlos Alverez makes a suitably devious counterpart as Jago (Iago) and Marina Poplavskaya is a credible Desdemona. The supporting roles are all strong and the overall performance carries considerable conviction.
The staging is minimalist and this will either succeed in concentrating the mind on the drama or not. This will be a very personal reaction and is therefore beyond the brief of this review. For me personally, it worked, largely as a result of the excellence of the singers in carrying out the dramatic requirements of their roles in addition to the purely vocal considerations.
The orchestra is given full reign and this led some newspaper reviewers attending the original performances at the Festival to comment about the balance which gave the orchestra such prominence relative to the singers. It is this aspect of balance that has drawn the most adverse reviewer comment. However, as a now retired orchestral player, I would like to stress that I find the sound to be superb and faithfully representative of the expected 'live' balances. It accurately reflects the sound world that I would expect from late Verdi which gives the orchestra far more prominence than that found in his early or middle period works.
Bearing in mind the range of critical responses to the recorded sound I sought the reaction of a 'hi-fi' enthusiast friend of mine. We listened to the opera carefully with the sound balances specifically in mind after which we discussed this very matter. We agreed that we would both expect the singers to be submerged occasionally considering the dramatic role given to the orchestral writing. To that extent the recording is completely faithful to both the composer and the performance. This is not a gentle story and needs to be played for the raw drama that it is. Otherwise the imaging can be described as sharp in typical HD fashion and the sound is presented in superbly realistic PCM 5.0 as well as stereo bearing in mind the provisos as above.
I would suggest that this is a very fine, perceptive and dramatic performance of a violent story. The recording does it full justice as does Muti who is temperamentally ideally suited to such an opera. This is a disc that deserves serious consideration as a potential purchase therefore.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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I don't doubt that this is a very good performance. However, poor technical quality spoils the esthetic experience. Video could have been OK, but with the resolution of HD video, the sweating of the singers/actors become disturbing and take attention away from their artistic performances. Worse, however, is the quality of the sound. The orchestra dominates over the singing. Exaggerations in dynamics, that is, in the difference between pianissimo and fortissimo, makes it difficult to find the right volume level. The sound of the orchestra, however, is crisp and clear. The voices of the singers, on the other hand, are not done justice at all. They sound far away, behind, almost like behind a wall, with very poor treble. The sound mixing has failed, and one suspects use of low end microphones on stage. I tried to compensate by giving more weight to the center front speaker, compared to left and right speakers. It helped a little to hear the singers, but it did not improve pitch and timbre. If you have a low-end surround system you may tolerate the sound quality, but with a high-end system you will be greatly disappointed.